Just being there

First Draft

We've seen a few bits of positive feedback for Emily Short's epistolary story First Draft of the Revolution since its release a few weeks ago. (Here's a nice review on Kotaku).

But we've also seen some really interesting... not criticisms, exactly, but confusions. Ways in which the expectation of players didn't quite match what they got. And the one that seems to recur is this question: "Can the player change the story?"

Writing is rewriting

First Draft has an unusual and rather intriguing interface, in which the reader sits inside the mind of the major characters, helping them to decide how to redraft the letters they are writing to each other. From this point of view we see events from many different angles, as well as seeing how they present themselves by how they massage the text and what they are eventually willing to commit to paper.

Rewriting a letter

The player makes their choices, sending a letter only once both they and the letter-writer are happy with the result. And then the next letter is presented.

The whole story has around twenty such interactions and over the course of it, the main character, Juliette, goes through something of a redraft herself.

Changing the changes

Emily wrote in her author statement that she originally foresaw there being an element of challenge - of arranging circumstances in favourable or less favourable ways, or of trying to manipulate the outcome. But after a while, she saw that wasn't what the story was about. "Too much strategic thinking of that kind," she writes, "would distract the player from focusing on the thematic issues that I wanted to explore".

It seems curious, but that idea - of removing branching and alteration from the overall narrative - seems to have thrown a few players off. "I liked it, but played it twice and got the same ending both times. Maybe I'm missing something," says a commentator on Metafilter. "I've only done one playthrough - how much variation is there to the endings, ultimately?" says another responder who senses the fixed structure but is unwilling to be sure...

Why choose?

There's an expectation that choices have consequences; that in an interactive work there are visible or invisible resources being earned and spent. Our role as readers is to husband resources on behalf of the poor protagonists, who, after all, do not realise that they're living in a computer simulation. We do the strategic thinking, and they get on with living.

And it's a fair expectation, surely: what's the point if your choices don't affect what happens? If they don't, why not just tell your story the old-fashioned way? We saw this feedback from some quarters even to Frankenstein - if you can't stop the monster from killing, why read on? (And that was in a book that tracks plenty of choices, silently producing quite different a reading depending on how you play.) Surely interactivity implies, not only adaptation, but control. Take away control and what good is interaction?

This is not a simulation

So: let's reveal the truth. Do the choices in First Draft - to be forthright, or cautious - have any effect on the outcome of the narrative? Well, at inkle we co-made the code with Liza Daly, and we can tell you that every choice you make is discarded by the computer the moment that you commit to it. But do the choices affect the story? Yes. Of course they do. Partly because the choices are being remembered by the other data-collecting system in action during the game, which is the one that sits between your ears. And partly because you're performing the act of choosing.

The indecision of the characters, expressed through your choices and changes, changes everything. It's a little like the way an actor's reading of a line in a play changes the way the scene is experienced. Each performance is different even though each telling is the same. A gripping play isn't about control, but it isn't passive either - it's electrifying, because every second is alive with possibility. Drama arises from the space between one second and the next, quite regardless of whether we're in a screwball comedy where anything can happen, or a tragedy where a bleak fate was prophesied in Scene One.

And that's the point of the interactivity - to conjure up the moments in which the story occurs. In First Draft, we read character's letters, but we also witness them acting - thinking, feeling, and changing their mind.

Forget about the outcome. You'll reach the end when it's due. Read First Draft or download the ePub 3 version, because it's about just being there.

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